Was our imperfect world created by a clever but bumbling lab scientist?

Big bang ripple discovery lends credence to the theory that a superdense atom exploded to create our universe

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 3:39am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 3:39am

The universe is utterly arbitrary, creation itself is flawed, and its creator might have little idea of what he, she or it was doing.

That was the worldview of Andrei Linde, a Russian-American physicist who until last week was mostly unknown outside of the cognoscenti of modern cosmology. Not any more.

Linde, along with Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is most famous for having developed the so-called inflation theory of the big bang. Last week, observational astronomers announced they have detected what has been called the holy grail of their field: ripples in the fabric of space-time that are echoes of the massive expansion of the universe called the big bang and which were long predicted by Guth and Linde.

The discovery of such gravitational waves would complete the big bang theory's explanation of the origin of universe. It's called inflation because they posit that at the blink of an eye after the big bang, the infant cosmos expanded exponentially, inflating in size by 100 trillion trillion times. The rapid ballooning explains why our universe has an even temperature all around: it would iron out all the wrinkles and irregularities of space-time.

In the world of science, last week was a very big deal. Nobel prizes have been handed out for works that are less significant.

But just as people forever pontificate about what Einstein and Stephen Hawking could possibly mean when they mention God about this and that when they talked about the universe, they will likely wonder now what Linde's irreligious-religious views are. The Vatican has long endorsed the big bang theory, thinking it legitimises the idea of a supreme creative force.

Linde doesn't necessarily disagree, except that he thinks the creator is more of a bumbling if clever hacker or lab scientist.

The only place that I know of where he discusses such issues is in a long interview with Jim Holt, published in the science journalist's recent, and frequently very funny, book, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story.

Linde's basic idea is that given inflation, it doesn't take much to create a universe, so a civilisation not much more advanced than ours could have done it. As Guth, interviewed by The New York Times, explains: "It's often said that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but the universe might be the ultimate free lunch."

Linde thinks it only takes a hundred-thousandth of a gram of matter and a small chunk of vacuum for someone to start his own big bang, and inflation would take care of the rest.

"It looks like cheating, but that's how the inflation theory works - all the matter in the universe gets created from the negative energy of the gravitational field," he told Holt.

"So what's to stop us from creating a universe in a lab?"

But wouldn't this creator/lab guy destroy his own world with his ballooning creation? Linde said no: "The new universe would expand into itself. Its space would be so curved that it would look as tiny as an elementary particle to its creator. In fact, it might end up disappearing from his own world altogether."

This is the idea of the multiverse.

Our 13.8 billion-year-old universe may be settling down to a relatively stable state in a tiny corner of the vast cosmos, the rest of which may nevertheless be blowing more and more bubbles, that is, other universes, endlessly. Linde might have quoted William Blake:

To see a world in a grain of sand; And a heaven in a wild flower; Hold infinity in the palm of your hand; And eternity in an hour.

Linde claimed this "creator" probably tried to communicate with us: "Suppose [he] tried to write, 'Please remember that I made you' on the surface of the nascent universe." That wouldn't work, he said jokingly, because the universe expanded so quickly through inflation that little creatures like us couldn't catch the message fast enough.

Instead, Linde thought the creator wrote the physical constants of physics like the mass of the electron and Planck's constant, values that look entirely arbitrary, as coded messages that there was intelligence, however flawed, behind our creation.

"The creator, by fixing certain values for these constants, could write a subtle message into the very structure of the universe," wrote Holt about Linde, in much the same way as the Bible being God's way of communicating with the faithful.

"You might take this as a joke," Linde told Holt. "But perhaps it is not entirely absurd. It may furnish the explanation for why the world we live in is so weird, so far from perfect. On the evidence, our universe wasn't created by a divine being. It was created by a physicist-hacker."

Yeah, but who created the physicist-hacker?

Alex Lo edits the science and technology page